GONE TO THE WOODS: SURVIVING A LOST CHILDHOOD, by Gary Paulsen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), Jan. 12, 2021, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
Gary Paulsen is one of the most beloved writers of books for young readers. Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood follows the childhood events that helped shaped some of Paulsen’s greatest stories.
Gary Paulsen portrays a series of life-altering moments from his turbulent childhood as his own original survival story. If not for his summer escape from a shockingly neglectful Chicago upbringing to a North Woods homestead at age 5, there never would have been a Hatchet. Without the encouragement of the librarian who handed him his first book at age 13, he may never have become a reader. And without his desperate teenage enlistment in the Army, he would not have discovered his true calling as a storyteller. —Synopsis provided by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Just under 11 years ago, I had the privilege of speaking with Gary Paulsen in advance of an author visit to Salt Lake for two of his books — Lawn Boy Returns and Woods Runner. I had the opportunity to interview him again via email about a year and a half later for Flat Broke. Both times Paulsen spoke of his love for reading and writing and how books “saved” his as a child, giving him “an escape from my horrible childhood.”
Gone to the Woods gives readers a glimpse of that childhood, and it’s not easy reading. That’s not to say the writing is bad, rather it’s so good that you are immediately transported to a world in which no child should have to grow up.
Paulsen’s prose is poignant and immersive, pulling you in further and further until you have to keep reading. You feel his joy, his sadness, his confusion and his pain. His experiences with his aunt and uncle are heartwarming and those with his parents, heartbreaking.
My favorite section is where he discovers the library as a teen. There’s a great deal of wonder and heart in those pages.
“I had no home life, no school life, almost no friends,” Paulsen told me in 2010. “This librarian kind of intellectually took me under her wing and got me into reading. I think what happened was that kind of transposed itself into wanting to be a writer.”
“I can’t not write,” Paulsen said in 2011, “but it takes everything out of me when I work in a wonderful way. The dance with words and the way the hair on the back of my neck raises when it works right is what I live for.”
Paulsen’s passion for the written word is clear in Gone to the Woods. The tone, even when dealing with difficult subjects, has a soft clarity to it I’ve yet to find anywhere else.
The publisher’s suggested age range for Gone to the Woods is 8-12. I’d put it at a mature 10 and up. The “up” part refers to adults, as well, who will easily fall into this excellent book.
Gone to the Woods is not a fast read, and it deals with some hard topics. It only covers Paulsen’s life from about age 5 to his later teens. The age cutoff is necessary but a bit too abrupt for those expecting a more encompassing finish.
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